Consumer watchdogs face an uncertain future — so does customer service

By | October 6th, 2010

These are not the best of time for consumer watchdogs.

Many of the most celebrated TV reporters who focused on consumer affairs have been let go, reports the Los Angeles Times. That’s not just bad news for the talented journalists who used to look out for you — it’s bad for all of us.

Take what happened to perhaps the best-known of the consumer reporters (and a man I idolized as a college student in Southern California): David Horowitz.

He’s reportedly off the air, but plying his trade online. Horowitz now charges customers for his services. Working with a handful of aides, he gets $50 for an over-the-phone consultation and $250 for a longer investigation.

In the years after he left TV, the consumer gadfly has augmented his reporting by touting causes for pay. In 1998, Horowitz got $106,000 to speak out against a state ballot measure to slash electricity rates. A couple years later, he got an unknown sum to fight an L.A. City Council proposal to force cable TV companies to open their high-speed Internet lines to competitors.

Another consumer advocate, Alan Mendelson, who used to be a business and personal finance reporter for KCAL in Los Angeles, spent years telling viewers he could help them find “best buys.” But he lost his job in 2006 and has since made his living producing infomercials (many for lawyers) and a weekend “Best Buys” show that airs on KCOP Channel 13.

The website for the program promises an expert with a “black belt in shopping” but the bottom line is that Mendelson features only companies that paid to be on the air.

Very disturbing.

The problem here isn’t the consumer reporters. They’re trying to earn a living, and I think they’re doing the best they can. They also deserve a lot of credit for the investigative, pro-consumer work they did over the years.

The problem is the institutions they worked for, who are not willing to fund this important kind of journalism. When consumer reporting goes away, so does customer service.

(Photo: M. K arshis/Flickr Creative Commons)

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